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A top FBI agent explains why hackers are 'a little ahead'

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Do global hackers ever get caught?

Actually, yes. But the type of hackers who recently hijacked 300,000 computers in 150 countries with the so-called WannaCry ransomware have an inherent advantage against law enforcement agencies. “The bad guys have no rules to be governed by,” Ari Mahairas, head of the cyberinvestigative division for the FBI’s New York office, tells Yahoo Finance in the video above. “The good guys have to follow a process while conducting these investigations, so [the hackers] tend to be a little ahead.”

Hackers and the cops who chase them through cyberspace are in a digital arms race, as each side tries to gain an edge on the other. ”It’s moving at lightning speed,” Mahairas says. “The complexity and sophistication of these attacks is progressing.”

With prominent hacks on Britain’s National Health Service, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee, the Office of Personnel Management and Sony Pictures, among others, it might seem that everybody will eventually get hacked, with no punishment for the hackers—usually hidden in faraway places.

But sometimes the good guys get a hand up. Mahairas points to hacks involving the Bowman Avenue Dam in suburban New York as an instance where law enforcement identified 7 Iranians responsible, and did what it could. “We can’t obviously go into Iran and ask for their extradition,” he says. “However, these people have felt our breath on their neck, and they’re going to have to think twice before they get on a plane and travel outside.”

For as common as hacks are, security experts say there are some surprisingly simple ways to keep criminals out. First—you know where this is going—never open an email attachment from an unknown sender. And second, keep all operating systems up to date with the latest upgrades and security patches.

Mahairas also encourages companies to get involved with FBI prevention efforts—before there’s a problem. “We want to meet you on a sunny day before the rain comes in, and we’re dealing with you for the first time,” he says. That means literally picking up the phone and calling the local FBI office—before they have to call you.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.